The Nolan Puzzle Box
I recently shared a Sordid Cinema podcast about Dunkirk with Goomba Stomp’s Simon Howell who referred to Christopher Nolan’s penchant for scrambled chronologies as “Nolan’s puzzle box.” Nolan had played with narrative chronologies early in his career, toying with non-linear storytelling in Memento and The Prestige, then taking a quantum leap with Inception, piling four narrative lines on top of each other, running in parallel, each representing a deeper dream state penetrated by a team of dream sharers. In Interstellar, Nolan devised two parallel but ultimately intersecting timelines – less a puzzle box than a narrative Mobius strip bending back on itself– based on Einsteinian concepts of time-bending. In retrospect, these previous efforts seem like a build-up for Dunkirk which Nolan has aptly described as his “most experimental” work yet.
Dunkirk has three narrative lines, one set on land focusing mainly on the efforts of a British soldier (Fionn Whitehead) to get himself out of Dunkirk; a second set at sea following a civilian volunteer (Mark Rylance) piloting his small boat across the channel to participate in the evacuation; and the third about a Spitfire pilot (Tom Hardy) flying air cover for the evacuation. But while Dunkirk shares the concept of parallel narratives with Inception and Interstellar, in Dunkirk the narrative lines, while parallel, are not congruent.
In those earlier films, there is a direct connection between the narrative lines; the four narratives of Inception are happening simultaneously and involve dream sharers at each level working in concert. In Interstellar, Nolan gives us an astronaut who doesn’t age, linked back through an alien-constructed, time-twisting tesseract to his daughter on Earth who has grown up in his absence. But in Dunkirk, although the three narratives occasionally bump against each other and ultimately kinda/sorta intersect, there’s no direct connection between the three, and they don’t even play out in the same time frame.
The land narrative covers a week; the sea narrative spans a day; and the aerial narrative just an hour. Each proceeds independent of the other, each existing in its own bubble, each populated with its own cast of characters. Unlike traditional parallel narratives, when Nolan intercuts between the different narrative lines, we’re not watching actions happening in different places at the same time, but actions that may be separated not just by place, but by hours, even days. One might have to go all the way back to D.W. Griffith’s 1916 epic, Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (which Nolan admits to being an influence) to find a similarly constructed mainstream film with its four parallel narratives separated by centuries, tied not by connections between the characters or plots, but thematically.
Stories about Nothing…Yet Everything
Concepts of grabbing an audience in the first ten pages, three-act structure, making each scene drive the plot forward – all the standard “rules” of screenplay construction are irrelevant to Dunkirk. There is, actually only minimal plot in each of the three narrative lines: Whitehead spends his week alternating between idling the time away hoping to be evacuated and trying ploys to get himself on a ship; Rylance pilots his boat across the channel, accompanied by his son and a young hand, he picks up a shell-shocked British soldier who survived the sinking of his transport, he picks up a downed RAF flyer, the boy working as his crew is accidentally but seriously injured; Hardy’s flight of Spitfires intermittently cross paths with German aircraft, he loses his flight leader after one dogfight, another comrade after another. Until the closing minutes of the film when the narratives draw together and generate some urgency, none of the narrative lines have the kind of cumulative build we see in more traditional story arcs. Rather, they seem more random series of events giving little forward movement to the film.
Untwine the three narratives and reassemble them separately, and they still lack a conventional structure. There are no three acts (i.e. set-up, development, conclusion). Act I has occurred for all three lines even before the movie has started. There is little explanatory exposition (in contrast, think of Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far , adapted from Cornelius Ryan’s account by William Goldman, which begins with a history briefing on the war up to that point, then follows it up with war movies’ obligatory explain-the-plan scene). Nolan has said he wanted an “experiential” film; that the audience wouldn’t know – or care – about anything anymore or less than any soldier on that beach. Consequently, at Dunkirk’s beginning, we barely know where we are, when, what’s happening, or why. We only know that survival means getting on a boat.
As for development, well, there isn’t any. Rather, most of the movie exists in a kind of steady-state: Whitehead trying to get off the beach, Rylance trying to reach Dunkirk, Hardy trying to protect the men and boats below.
Nolan isn’t laying out three storylines. The individual narrative lines, and the incidents that comprise them, impact on individual characters but are not particularly important individually to the overall sense of the film. Rather, they come together like tiles in a grand scale mosaic telling the story of the Battle of Dunkirk not in a linear fashion, but like a story mural.
Who the Hell Are These People?
Nolan doesn’t put much more meat on his characters than he does on his different narrative lines.
There is no main character; Dunkirk is an ensemble piece and one comprised of characters about whom we know and learn little or nothing. One thinks back over previous war movies and remembers inspirational speeches, reveries about the life left behind back home, about future plans… Dunkirk has none of that.
Conversations in screenplay development sessions are filled with talk about “character arcs,” “epiphanies,” questions about “What does the character want?” and “What does the character learn?” and third act turning points… Dunkirk has none of that, either.
For the most part, the characters at the end of the film are much as we found them, and with the exception of a single background fact about Rylance’s character, we don’t know any more about them at the end than we did at the beginning. In fact, Nolan, by design, offers very little dialogue (Hardy’s pilot, for example, only has ten lines of dialogue), and much of that is perfunctory.
Although Nolan doesn’t offer us the usual points of connection, we still respond to the characters in Dunkirk. My 19-year-old daughter, who was overwhelmed by the film, explained it better than I could:
When I watch a documentary on TV about Syria and I see a little kid sitting in the road crying surrounded by all these bombed buildings, I don’t have to know anything about that kid to feel bad for him.
We experience Nolan’s characters similarly, judging them and defining them – again, experientially — by the only evidence we have: what we see them do or fail to do, whether it’s a pilot sacrificing the last of his fuel – and his way home — to protect the evacuation boats or a frightened soldier who picks up a wounded man found on the beach not out of altruism but to use as a ticket onto a hospital ship. Nolan presents all this without judgment, offering only as much or as little justifying context as we can see. In this, Dunkirk – and this is possibly one of the film’s greatest strengths – is one of the most painfully honest of war films.
Screenwriter and producer Josh Friedman recently put it best in a Time article talking about how he battled with a network over how flawed to portray characters in a script:
I argued that bravery in the face of death shouldn’t be the protagonists’ default setting. Because when we glorify strength without showing empathy for weakness, we end up with a toxic version of heroism, one that links bravery to goodness and cowardice to getting what you deserve.
And when we do that, we can no longer tell stories of grace, forgiveness, or connectedness. We can no longer tell stories about real people – the ones who fail, the ones who are afraid, and the ones who let themselves and others down. These are the stories we need more than ever…
Sired by Kubrick
A self-admitted fan of Stanley Kubrick, more than in any of Nolan’s previous films one can see Dunkirk’s ancestral roots in some of Kubrick’s signature works.
In many of his major efforts beginning with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), (A Clockwork Orange , Barry Lyndon , The Shining , Full Metal Jacket , Eyes Wide Shut ), Kubrick showed less interest in grabbing an audience with a story than with a sense.
Consider 2001; a movie with a minimal and opaque plot, little in the way of characters, and in which Kubrick intentionally kept the sparse dialogue banal and meaningless (sound familiar?). Kubrick described his goal as creating “…a non-verbal experience…”; a film that worked on an audience more like a piece of music or a poem. Acclaimed author and academic Dr. Benjamin “Bernie” Dunlap, whom I was lucky enough to have as my first film teacher years ago at the University of South Carolina, offered the best description I’ve ever heard of the aesthetic of 2001 calling it a “tone poem,” not unlike Also Sprach Zarathustra, the Richard Strauss composition which became the film’s signature theme.
Kubrick went still further with a film even more closely connected to Dunkirk, his Vietnam War epic Full Metal Jacket. If 2001 has a minimal plot, Full Metal has none and offers just as little in the way of character. Full Metal Jacket is set in Vietnam, but it’s not about Vietnam, just like Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) is more about Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness than it is about the war. According to Kubrick’s co-writer on Full Metal, Michael Herr, Kubrick was attempting an observation about the “phenomenon” of war with Vietnam as an example rather than a topic.
With Dunkirk, Nolan comes close to emulating the best works of one of his major influences, telling a story without telling it, connecting with audiences on a level that circumvents the usual logic centers processing plot and character development. I’d argue Dunkirk is not a story at all but works more like a poem.
Not too long ago, I had the privilege of attending some poetry writing workshops conducted by award-winning poet Renee Ashley as part of a creative writing program at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Full disclosure: I am not a poetry guy. I don’t read it, I am sure as hell don’t write it, and on the rare occasions when I have read it, I almost never understand it. Ashley was the first person who ever got me to understand the dynamic of poetry, and it applies here (in what follows, replace “prose” with “narrative film” and “poetry” with “Dunkirk”).
Ashley displayed two photos of walls of field stone: one “dry,” built by a crafty fitting of the stones together, and the other “wet” with the stones held together with cement. Prose, she explained, is the wet wall; all the gaps are filled with no flexibility in the wall. Poetry is the dry wall filled with gaps large and small. Poetry, Ashley said, is “associative”; the usual logical connecting steps – the cement — of prose isn’t there.
“Prose,” she said, “goes in the front door, says what it has to say, and leaves. Poetry goes through the back door, the window, the vents, anywhere but the front door.”
With its minimal plot, minimal characters (we don’t even see the Germans except for a glimpse as silhouettes and out-of-focus figures in the closing minutes of the movie), minimal everything, Dunkirk is the war movie as cinematic haiku.
It is not a movie for everybody. It’s not supposed to be. I understand the frustrations of those for whom the film doesn’t work. Simon Howell said he hungered to see the “language of movies” when he watched Dunkirk which I took to mean things like narrative cohesion, multi-dimensional characters, context.
I remember coming out of Dunkirk saying to my wife, “There are going to be people who love this picture, and people who hate it, probably for the same reasons some people will love it. But there won’t be anybody in between.” I can’t think of anything more unimaginable than someone coming out of Dunkirk saying, “Well, I kinda liked it.”
As I tell my writing students, the prose author writes to be read. The poet writes because the poet has something they need to express. Poets write for themselves.
Nolan may have always admired Kubrick, loved his movies, but Kubrick had more of the artist – of the poet — in him than Nolan, who has nonetheless impressively pushed at the boundaries of what’s possible in mainstream commercial filmmaking, but never quite broken through them. Until Dunkirk.
The “rules” of screenwriting are strong, reliable basics. Three-act structure, sympathetic characters we come to know, etc. – they’ve become taken as rules because they can almost always provide a solid piece of work.
But to achieve more, to go beyond the norms, to create something that’s not just good, solid work, and by so doing risk not trying to connect with the largest possible audience – as an acquaintance of mine once said – means risking going “out where the buses don’t run.” The classic and memorable in the grand world canon of cinema tend to be those movies that didn’t do what they were supposed to do, and it’s worth noting they were not always appreciated or even understood in their time (it may be forgotten now, but many of Kubrick’s movies – like 2001 and Full Metal Jacket – were not universally praised when first released and have only attained their classic status over time).
Sometimes, to give a work a distinctive voice, an identity that can never be copied means doing what you’re not supposed to do. Here I quote what one of my high school mates wrote under his yearbook picture – “When they give you lined paper, write the other way.”
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